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6 September, 2012  ▪  Спілкувався: Olena Chekan

A Melody Revealed

Taras Filenko speaks about Mykola Lysenko’s contribution to studying and systematising folk melodies and his impact on the world music process

The book-album Svit Mykoly Lysenka. Natsionalna identychnist, muzyka i polityka Ukrainy XIX – pochatku XX stolittia (The World of Mykola Lysenko. National Identity, Music and Politics in Ukraine in the 19th and Early 20th Century) speaks about the life and work of this outstanding Ukrainian composer and the activities of his contemporaries. The work is dedicated to an entire era — the one in which Mykhailo Drahomanov, Lesia Ukrainka, Ivan Franko, Solomia Krushelnytska, Olena Pchilka, Mykhailo Starytsky, Kyrylo Stetsenko, Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, Maria Zankovetska, Hnat Khotkevych and many others were active. A number of memoirs, letters, archival materials and photos contained have been published for the first time. The Ukrainian Week spoke with the author, Dr. Taras Filenko, a specialist in ethnic music and a musician himself.

U.W.: What inspired you to write a book about the founder of Ukrainian classical music?

The idea was prompted by Mykola Lysenko’s son, Ostap. My mother, Tamara Bulat, embraced it. At the time, in the late 1960s, archival documents, musical scores and manuscripts – all the materials linked to the composer – were stored in boxes in a small room on the second floor of the Kyiv Conservatory. It was his memorial office where Ostap Lysenko and his wife, and later also my mother, worked and this is where the idea to write the book originated. Ostap noted that his father's close associates were always looked at with suspicion by the Soviets. This may be why the book took so long to publish – it speaks of many artists whose names were never mentioned before.

I remember that when I had grown up, my mother's friends gave me negatives taken from special funds and banned by Soviet censorship as “bourgeois nationalist” for one night. They were unknown to the public. I produced about 20-30 photos in the bathroom at night, and now they are part of the book. Later we collected material not only from Ukraine but also from archives in Poland, America, Canada, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Austria and Russia.

For the first time in the history of music studies we have been able to present and publish a complete list of Lysenko’s works, which can fill a 40-volume edition. A number of his musical works were kept in archives and were not well-studied. The book took almost 40 years to write.

U.W.: You put Lysenko into the category of ethnic music specialists in your book. What is his contribution to the study of traditional folk music cultures?

Lysenko is not only a Ukrainian composer but also a world-calibre activist. He embodied three powerful strands of European culture: German music (through his teachers Ignaz Moscheles who was friends with Beethoven and Chopin and Carl Reinecke who was a student of Mendelssohn and Schumann), Russian music (represented by Rimsky-Korsakov, Tschaikovsky and Mussorgsky) and the authentic polyphony of Ukrainian folk music in combination with the music achievements of Bortniansky, Vedel and Berezovsky. Lysenko had a tremendous influence on Western ethnic music studies and was in constant contact with Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian and French composers and students of folk melodies. His authority in the musical world at the time was undeniable. It was no coincidence that Julien Tiersot sent a copy of his work on French folk music to Lysenko for review.

Lysenko made a colossal contribution to popularising Ukrainian melodies. He personally organised concerts and lectures in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kyiv and dozens of cities in and outside Ukraine in order to present Ukrainian music culture which no-one knew about.

U.W.: In his lifetime the term “ethnomusicology” did not exist yet. What trends in music does this science study?

This is a relatively new area which became an academic subject in 1950. When I completed a course in ethnomusicology at Pittsburg University, I became extremely interested in it. My colleague, Professor Akin Euba from Nigeria who worked in Germany and studied the fundamental elements of this discipline, unexpectedly suggested to me that our Lysenko was the founder of ethnic music studies. I was stunned by this revelation, because it had never occurred to me before.

Ethnomusicology studies folk music plus its multiple contexts – anthropological, sociological, teleological, ritual, gender, political, etc. This term was first used not by Jaap Kunst in 1950, as encyclopaedias claim, but by Klyment Kvitka in 1928, as our contemporary scholar and folklore specialist Yaroslam Harasym has proved. But because Kvitka was persecuted his entire life, his works did have that much impact on the music circles back then. Later the term gained currency in the West, particularly in Germany, France and the Netherlands. When I argued at a conference in Cambridge that Lysenko was the founder of ethnomusicology, the audience was first shocked. But after a pause everyone applauded.

U.W.: Is anyone in Ukraine dealing with ethnomusicology as part of research into Lysenko’s artistic heritage?

I believe that only a narrow circle of specialists know about it. We need to rise to a totally different level. I am so pleased that English-speaking scholars and ordinary readers have taken our work on Lysenko in the context of such issues as national identity, politics and music very seriously. A university professor from Budapest wrote me 5-6 years ago: “I am teaching an entire course of political science based on your book and believe that it is the most objective presentation of the political situation in Eastern Europe.” I was amazed, because this is not the main theme in my book about Lysenko, even though politics does permeate every word of the artist and his works. Every campaign organised by his colleagues in those times was politically motivated. Think about, for example, festivities dedicated to Shevchenko – they were an answer to the curtailment of the Ukrainian language and culture in the Russian Empire.

U.W.: Western readers of your book have pointed out its extensive coverage of tsarist censorship and prohibition of the Ukrainian language. You said in one of your interviews abroad that you see the same thing happening in Ukraine today. Could you please expand on that?

Ukraine is independent today, but I have the impression that the methods applied against our culture are being put back in use. Ukrainian culture is now in the same condition it was in Lysenko’s lifetime: it is not national but marginal, a subculture of an ethnos oppressed morally, politically and economically.

Ukrainian diplomats in the West have complained to me that they have nothing to give as presents abroad. There is a lack of cultural presents. They have albums about Kyiv, Kharkiv, the Crimea and Lviv – and that’s it. So I decided to give Ukraine’s embassies abroad free-of-charge English-language copies of the book about Lysenko, a book that speaks of national identity. I called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but there was no reaction.

U.W.: What are you planning to do to promote your research?

Together with Olha Krekoten, the literary editor of the book, I am going to prepare a complete annotated list of Lysenko’s works within 2-3 months and publish it on paper and online. Then I will publish material about unknown composers who worked outside Ukraine, will give lectures and concerts and will participate in radio programmes. As far as the book-album on Lysenko is concerned, I would like all the proceeds to be used to pay tuition for students studying Ukrainian music.


Ethnomusicology is the science of recording, categorising and studying folk music. The study of folk music sources began in the 19th and early 20th century, at a time when the peoples of Europe were experiencing a revival in identity and modern identities were being formed. Large contributions to the growth of ethnomusicology were made by Ukrainian composers Mykola Lysenko and Filaret Kolessa, Hungarian Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly and Russian Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The international Society of Ethnomusicology was founded in 1955.

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